‘Birdman’s’ Times Square Scene: How They Did It

'Birdman's' Times Square Scene Broken Down

Much has been made of “Birdman” director/co-writer Alejandro G. Inarritu’s conceit of making a movie that seems to be one continuous, two-hour shot. The actual filming consisted of long takes edited to look seamless. Each sequence offered challenges, but the Times Square scene introduced special difficulties.

The scene: Actor Riggan (Michael Keaton), wearing only his underpants, gets locked out of Broadway’s St. James theater and has to walk past gawking fans in Times Square to get to the theater’s main entrance.

Logistical challenge: The production couldn’t afford to shut down Times Square or populate it with paid extras, so it risked filming with real onlookers. “We worried about security,” Inarritu says. Plus there was a fear someone would stare at the camera or walk into the scene. “There was no possibility to cut away if that happened” since it was one long take, the director notes. “If any scene in the film failed, I could not remove it or manipulate it. It had to be perfect.”

Creative challenge: The scene had to show Riggan’s emotional, manic state of mind, says the filmmaker. “It had to be intimate but spectacular — massive.” Inarritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki worked out the logistics of the scene, which takes place at night, and decided which angle of Times Square offered the best lighting. The camera starts with an over-the-shoulder shot, then moves laterally with Keaton, then moves in front of him, to show his reaction as people recognize him and want to take his picture.

Prep: A week before filming, Inarritu and Keaton walked through the scene. On the afternoon before the first take, a fully dressed Keaton walked through it with the director.

Filming: There were four takes, starting at 8:30 p.m. If the shot was too early, the lighting wouldn’t work; too late, the crowd would thin. Crew was kept to a minimum, to draw as little attention as possible. Keaton’s movements were accompanied by only four people: Lubezki; the focus puller; the boom operator; and the digital imaging technician. Eight production assistants worked on crowd control. Inarritu was close by; for two of the four takes, he shot Keaton with his smartphone for footage used in a subsequent scene in which Emma Stone watches the incident on YouTube.

Distraction: To divert attention from the camera, Inarritu hired a group of street drummers who danced and performed nearby. “All the tourists wanted to look at these drummers. A half-naked man in Times Square? They’ve seen that before.”

Discarded solution: “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” had built a set of Times Square. The “Birdman” team briefly debated using that and filling it with extras, or simulating a crowd via CGI. “But it would have looked terrible,” Inarritu says.

Post-filming challenge: Times Square is full of prominent brand advertising, usually in neon. The “Birdman” legal team had to get permission from each brand to be used onscreen.

The result: Eye-popping and emotionally like a Freudian nightmare.

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  1. Hugh Karraker says:

    Did the production company have to get waivers from any of the on lookers? So many are recognizable.
    Hugh

    • timgray2013 says:

      I’m not sure what you mean by waivers. The production did indeed use some professional extras in the foreground. And otherwise, the company says they received all the filming permits and release forms that were needed. Does that answer your question? Thanks,
      Tim

  2. Chris Haarhoff says:

    Hi Tim,

    I usually don’t let articles like this bother me, but I have to point out that your research is thin to say the least. As the Steadicam operator that actually shot the full times square scene I am surprised to not be included in the four people “accompanying” Keaton. For your information a Digital Imaging Technician is somebody who sits in a chair looking at monitors, usually far from the action. Although central to the look of this film in particular, he is not really equipped to participate in the shooting of such a scene. Perhaps you mistook the Hot Dog Cart, for the DIT cart, and if so, I understand your error.

    All the best

    Chris Haarhoff

    • timgray2013 says:

      Hi. Thanks for writing. I will check. I got this from great sources. But I hear you; I was surprised at the presence of the DIT person. So I will check ASAP. Meanwhile, congrats on your great work. Tim

  3. Whitney says:

    I loved working on this film, especially in that scene. I loved seeing this film. It was as incredible wonderful to watch and it was unique!

  4. Interesting way of wording it. ” legal team had to get permission from each brand to be used onscreen”. the permission would not have come from the owners of the neon adverts but from the various sponsors of the movie to permit potential competing brands to appear on camera.

  5. Sean Benward says:

    Cool

  6. Hate to break it to ya, Variety, but there were also TONS of hired BG in that scene. I know because I am one of them :) Yes there were real tourists mixed in but the majority were carefully placed background talent. It was an amazing film to work on :)

  7. Ricardo says:

    Intresting… I didn’t see the drummers when I watched the movie but I spotted a glimpse of them in the trailer and they seem to be the same drummers at the end of the movie with all the super heroes leaping on stage in front of them. I thought, “Oh wow I didn’t even notice the foreshadowing of the drummers in that scene” but it turns out it wasn’t just that!

  8. Georg Knoke says:

    Amazing scene in Central Park! Well done!

  9. Caliann Lum says:

    Ironically, after all that effort by the production team, I just assumed it was staged, marveling at what a great job they’d done making it look real!

  10. honestalice says:

    What about the appearance releases of all the “extras”? Did they have to secure those or was the fact that they were permitted and posted that they were clearly shooting a film suffice?

  11. FilmFan82 says:

    ”conceit of making a movie” ??? Is that word supposed to be ‘concept’ ??? *sigh*

  12. Stanwyck says:

    “Time Square”. Sounds like something out of a 1980’s movie featuring a DeLorean. Can’t wait to see Michael Keaton in this movie. An under-appreciated actor who should be considered instead of Liam Neeson.

  13. Richard Smith Watson says:

    Unless you want to continue to look like 14-year old yahoos from Idaho, you may want to fix that headline. It’s “Times Square,” not “Time Square,” named as such after the New York Times moved their headquarters there in 1904.

  14. Little Birdie says:

    Sorry but the acting was not believable and the “Stunt” looked like a stunt. Same for the “penis” shot. YOU JUMPED THE SHARK. The Drummer was marching me right out of the theatre.

    • Ricardo says:

      The point of the movie was how exhibitionism becomes viral in this day and age, especially for well known actors. Every single time Riggan went on stage somebody had to be an exhibitionist. Riggan’s life became about being an exhibitionist as the premiere date of the show came closer and closer. With this in mind these kinds of things are forgivable.

      • Adele says:

        I like to hear people’s views on this film because I have only seen it once and just was amazed by every part of it and have no idea about what exactly it was about. I want to get it on DVD so I can rewatch and break it down.

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